Monday, 19 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One Review

After the furor of 2015’s release of The Force Awakens - solidly enjoyable, if wildly over-hyped, frequently playing for borderline-parody laughs, too self-assured that it was far better than it actually was, expectations were decidedly middling for this standalone spin-off, especially with reports of an absence of light-sabres, Jedi, and several re-shoots late into production.
With the recent release of Potter’s own new incarnation Fantastic Beasts, Hollywood’s current tent-pole model - after sequel, prequel, cinematic-universe crossover and origin fairy-tale revisionism - seems to allude to the continuation of existing franchises.
  Those fearing a bout of superhero-sequelitus however, are in for an exuberant, elaborate, daring, gleefully rewarding chapter in the saga. In fact, to bill it so overtly as ‘standalone’ or a ‘spin-off’, is doing it a major disservice. Giving absolutely nothing away, it makes a plethora of choices both visual and narratological, that slot perfectly into the main series. It’s far better than Force Awakens; darker, busier, but also far more fun, grounded within a much more traditional Star Wars tone and linear, avuncular structure, while also being strikingly original, too.
  British director Gareth Edwards has assembled an eclectic cast, a clutch of our very finest of character actors, particularly Ben Mendelsohn as a terrifically grasping villain, Diego Luna as a morally duplicitous new Han-Solo figure, and an underused Mads Mikkleson who’s always brilliant.
 Felicity Jones suffers slightly as Daisy Ridley did before her, from wooden dialogue delivered in a flat monotone that seems entirely unique to Star Wars. In terms of pure fan-boy adrenaline though, this is a return to rich, event-cinema. There are genuinely awe-inducing shocks and surprises, as well as moments of expertly maneuvered cameo trickery, with several important returning characters making startlingly modified appearances.
  Aesthetically too, this is visual-effects eye-candy, with stunning aerial  space-fights - never looking sharper - especially in 3D!
  Composer Micheal Giacchino crafts a fantastic original score, while also riffing off John William’s iconic themes - if you listen carefully!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 9 December 2016

Snowden Review

Snowden, 15, 134 mins, Vertigo Films / Open Road.

In his finest film in decades, Oliver Stone, a director at the very forefront of tackling cultural milestones, now chronicles that most divisive and polarising of figures; Edward Snowden.
 Snowden leaked thousands of the NSA’s classified documents to the press, claiming they flouted constitutional rights to privacy.
  So little of the inner-workings of what actually happened are known to the public, so Stone is set that most difficult of tasks, but crafts an utterly gripping, totally compelling cinematic exposé, into just how contentious the issues surrounding our collective securities and individual identities really are.
 It so easily could’ve been ploddingly pedestrian, or get bogged down in being a hot-button subject of such recent history, too top-heavy with gaggles of smart-phones and social-media platforms.
 The fact that it didn’t, is so profoundly due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrific, transcendent performance. As with the entire execution of the film itself, his central performance is so expertly understated. He’s always been such an incredibly subtle, confident actor; it really can just be an empathetic move of the eyes or incline of the head - and you reach into his very soul. This is all the more revelatory despite him being too conventionally smooth to really look like Snowden, but he certainly sounds like him with those mannered, dulcetly flat monotones - awards recognition is so long overdue.
  Supporting turns are also strong: Shailene Woodley infuses human vitality into Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay. If I’ve a singular problem with the structural choices; foregrounding their fraught romance - over pulsing thrills - may become a little insouciant.
  That’s far from saying the film is devoid of tension: the sequence where the files in question are gradually uploaded to a USB-stick concealed in a rubics-cube to avoid detection is the film’s real pin-drop moment, as is Rhys Ifan’s capricious snake of a task-master, revealing private doubt in giant-screen form. Joely Richardson is icy as a spiky Guardian editor, and Craig Armstrong’s bubbling, synth-inspired score adds to the conspiratorial chill of paranoia - in a fascinating account of the ambiguity of freedom, authority, and morality. In my top two films of 2016.

Rating: * * * * *


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Moana Review

Moana, PG, 103 mins, Disney Animation Studios.

A refreshing, stunningly realised and history-making parable - its heroine is the first in the studio’s history to originate from the Pacific Islands - of Polynesian descent.
  It’s comforting to know that in the current cultural landscape of unprecedented political change and diversity rows, Disney, as with Pocahontas and Lilo And Stitch before it, has made an embracing tale that displays its message with warming subtlety.
  It’s also not a traditional love-centric princess fairytale, instead decidedly a narrative of self-worth and ecological preservation. It’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, have helmed films with the calibre of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet - so they’re unparalleled masters of stirring, majestic resonance and visual sweep.
  With stunningly beautiful animation, there’s everything from parting turquoise waves, sunrises and tiny nuances in the character’s faces; in moments you look at them and believe they’re real people - even more immersive in 3D.
  The visuals are further complemented by a magnificently joyous soundtrack penned by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the visionary behind Broadway’s hottest ticket: Hamilton. Believe me, the main ballad, How Far I’ll Go, is Moana’s Let It Go, and will drive parents mad on repeat forever, just like its icy predecessor, though for my money, it has the emotional edge over the gargantuan success of Frozen.
 But not half as gargantuan as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s ultra-charismatic, film-stealing role as Maui, a muscle-bound, wisecracking demi-god - perfect casting! His number, ‘You’re Welcome’, cleverly plays on Johnson’s own perceived reputation as having an over-inflated ego and vanity - which couldn’t be further from the truth.
  Another favourite character of mine is Grandma Tala, perhaps the best-rendered grandparent ever in animation: Irascibly funny, Rachel House, who at just 45, brings an incredibly aged, very moving quality to her outstanding performance.
 2016’s best animation, Oscar-worthy and destined to be an instant classic!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Four Christmases Review

Season: Christmas 2008

Genre: Seasonal/ /Comedy/ Romantic/Slapstick.

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Favreau, Kristen Chenoweth, Robert Duvall, and Mary Steenburgen. With: Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek.

Running Time/Duration: 88 Mins Approx.

Certificate/Classification:   12A (Contains moderate language and sex references).

Seen At: The Trafford Centre’s Odeon Cinemas, Manchester.

On: Saturday, 6th December, 2008.

Supremely talented Hollywood favourite Vince Vaughn is usually known for darker, more adult projects such as Domestic Disturbance, Jurassic Park 2, A Cool Dry Place and of course his own reinvention of the most famous of hotel serial killers: Norman Bates, in the unashamedly identical 1998 remake of Psycho.
   However, this time last year, he made the wise choice of lightening his tastes a little with the delightful Fred Claus. He toned-down on the unsubtle, gross-out, slap sticky banter-esque humour that made him a huge star overnight with his breakthrough role in 1996’s Swingers - followed by the immature, parodying  Stiller/Wilson/Farrell collaborations like Old School or Starsky and Hutch  –of which, 2004’s Dodgeball was my favourite.  
 As a result has gained yet another – this time, family-orientated fan base.   
  One year on, he continues with the Christmassy theme with his Academy-Award Winning cute-as-a-cupcake co-star Reese Witherspoon, in Four Christmases.
   As soon as the gold-coloured magical titles appear, the opulently glittering cinematography, digitally-created snowfall and appropriately-updated seasonal soundtrack set the definitive feel-good mood.  It’ll warm the cockles of your heart during these cold winter nights, whilst making you laugh your stockings off at the same time. The two leads star as Brad and Kate, a couple who are not mad to get married or have children.
  In fact, in the opening bar scene, they even pretend not to know each other, with the first lines of the screenplay being as bold as: ‘You sure can talk the talk – but can you deliver the goodies?’.
  Their idea of Christmas tradition is to be anywhere but with their families at Christmas, repeatedly making up fictitious, increasingly elaborate stories. This time its ‘we’re inoculating children in Burma’, before ending the phone call with ‘Hi-Hop-Hey-Ho-Bop’ – Merry Christmas in Burmese.
   So it poses somewhat of a dilemma when all flights are cancelled and they’re forced to visit each other’s parents for Christmas…
  First, it’s off to meet Brad’s grumpy Pop Robert Duvall, as well as his brother – trained RFC fighter (‘not seen that move in a while!’) John Favreau. Duvall doesn’t exactly warm to his son’s gift of a ‘satellite’ as he calls it. When Brad says that he’s sorted a guy to install it for him, he replies: ‘If you think I’m gonna allow a sex predator into my house, you’ve got another thought coming’. So, Brad attempts to fit it himself with hilarious consequences… His brother’s wife has a tot in toe and is heavily pregnant with her second – so hormonal in fact that she asks Kate in a side-splittingly broad Southern American accent: ‘Would you like to flick my booby?’
   Next it’s on to Kate Mom’s Marilyn’s house (the ageless Mary Steenburgen). This segment is completely upstaged by ninety year-old Gram-Gram, who, when asked what she wants for Christmas replies: ‘I’d like to increase the frequency of what I can do to Grandpa with my hand and with my mouth…’
  Whilst Kate is frantically trying to retrieve a secret ‘magic-marker’ pregnancy-test (shock) from hyperactive toddlers inside of her worst fear (the dreaded jump-jump bouncy castle, Marilyn decides to reminisce over an old photo album. Brad discovers that Kate went to Fat Camp and was in fact: ‘Not a boy named Bjorn who was a twin that got jealous and ate the other baby in the womb’. Talking of babies, Brad has a terrible aversion to projectile-vomiting – ‘I wanna do it too!’.
  Then we meet Carrie’s Sissy Spacek, who plays Brad’s kind-hearted Mom Paula, whom Duvall earlier refers to as: ‘A common street whore’ due to the fact that she ran off with Brad’s best friend from school. Brad’s only feelings towards him are: ‘Now you’re sleeping with my Mom and it’s a little bit weird for me’. During the electronic version of charades, as well as being far to eager with the bleeper, Paula lets Kate in on the rather embarrassing fact that Brad: ‘Breast fed until he was five’.
   These are only a few examples of the one-liners featured in the belly-laugh inevitable, razor-sharp screenplay.
  The chemistry between the two leads is pure Christmas magic as they just bounce off each other with immaculately confrontational comic-timing, similar to Ben Affleck and Christina Applegate in 2004’s Surviving Christmas. Surprising, both festive favourites received a distinctly frosty reception from the critics. This hilarious, pitch-perfect comic caper obviously didn’t warm their cold hearts, but certainly raised mine to near boiling-point with its festive cheer. Never before have I laughed so much in a cinema, definitely not the Christmas turkey most people say it is, but rather a comforting and delicious Christmas pudding!

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